Interview with Chen Hangfeng

Chen Hangfeng in his Weihai Lu studio photographed by Luise Guest

I recently wrote a post about Shanghai-based artist, Chen Hangfeng, and his Logomania series, which examines the pervasiveness of commercialism in Shanghai through traditional Chinese papercuts. This is an except from an interview I conducted with him in his studio, while researching my book on China’s contemporary art scene, Paint By Numbers.

Why did you decide to combine modern logos and traditional Chinese art forms?

Well, for this I have to go back to my background in design. And, also when I was a kid I made papercuts – I just loved that kind of stuff. And then [while dealing with designs every day in my work] I just suddenly had this idea I wanted to play around with it. In the beginning, those kind of pieces were actually just a graphic on the computer. But after I created the graphics I thought, well, it will be interesting to see them as papercuts – so that’s why I did it.

When you first did them, did you imagine them becoming papercuts, or didn’t they really look like papercuts on the computer?

They didn’t really look like a papercut but, you know, while I’m doing this, I just suddenly had an idea that it will be interesting if I made a papercut from it. Why did I choose papercuts? There’s also a meaning behind this: the paper that’s cut from the [main] part – those motifs are basically nature, like flowers, animals, trees, leaves – and I guess that’s pretty much what life looked like. But nowadays pretty much all you see is brands.

Logomania No.2

Logomania No.2

And you took that further – you started doing carpets and fabric [with the same motifs]. Do those materials have any specific significance?

It’s kind of like it’s everyday material. Those carpets come from the everyday – it goes back to everyday material. After this piece I had this idea that I wanted to create one room with all the objects with that… not motif, but… maybe, “mark”. So that’s how I had the idea about wallpaper, furniture, carpets.

So originally they were going to be put together in one room, and then you didn’t do that in the end?

I didn’t have a chance. But from working on those series I got a little bored of it… So I sort of stopped from 2008.

Okay. Do you feel like if you’re bored by something that means you’re not gaining as much through the experience?

Yeah, I mean I feel as though I’m repeating myself. The concept is there, and I’m just choosing different type of material to repeat that, which is not as interesting.

Do you have a fear of repeating yourself, or a fear of losing interest?

I think interest factor is the most important.

What does art need to be for you – more like physically challenging or mentally stimulating?

More mentally stimulating for me, I think. The way I work right now is, I pretty much work on ideas. Like, if I have some ideas, I just write down a proposal. In one day I can only write two or three ideas. It kind of just gets the mind… out. But also, I think the interesting part about making art is that the idea alone is not enough. The interesting part is that you found the certain material – a medium – which matches the idea … Sometimes when I write down an idea, I feel really excited, but when I look at it four days later, I think: What am I thinking? It happens quite often. But when this idea always interests me and when the time comes that I think of an interesting medium, I can come back to it. That is good.

Logomania No.1, Chen Hangfeng

Logomania No.1, Chen Hangfeng

So you have to find the right medium for the idea, and the medium can add significance to the idea.

Yeah, the medium can create lots of layers within this idea. Because I think conceptual art is still visual art. The audience has to look at something – then they will get something from it, all of it. When I explore the material, then there’s a lot of pleasure in it, playing with the material, and it sort of pushes the boundary if you explore the material into a certain level. It totally becomes a new creation.

What kind of boundary?

For example, we have a plastic bottle, but you can do so many things with this kind of bottle. You can cut it, you can paint it, you can twist it, you can burn, you can pile up lots of bottles together.

So if I looked at that as a simple bottle, but then if you showed me that it’s not just a simple bottle, then you’ve broken the boundaries of this object?

Medium [not object]. It may not be a bottle, it could be a piece of paper, it could be a piece of brick…

So you have these ideas and you want to make them physical, but there’s also pleasure in creating.

Yeah, yeah, definitely. And also those media, those objects, those artworks – the pleasure I get is that I give meaning to those objects by playing with them: in the display, or the way I present it to the audience, to create a dialogue between the artwork and the audience. Well, maybe just for myself.

Well that’s the goal, right?

Yeah, that’s the goal.

– August 2010, Shanghai

This is an excerpt from an interview originally conducted for my recently published book, Paint By Numbers, which didn’t feature in the final version.

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